Commentary and Opinion

October 13, 2011

Literary Aesthetics and the E-Reader. Not an Irony.

By Jennifer Mitchell

I am someone who loves real books a great deal. I collect works of some key modern writers, and covet hard to find and expensive to buy hard backs. I’ve gathered all seven first editions of Anaïs Nin’s Diary, published by Swallow. I also have a second edition of Nin’s collection of short stories, Under a Glass Bell, which she most likely personally printed on a hand press in New York in 1944. My most cherished book is a first edition of Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, published in a small print run by Poetry Editions in 1945. I found an online photograph of the original cover (above), printed it to size, and made a dust jacket for it. There is nothing I would accept to part with it.

Fortunately, I can keep my first editions in their very good dust jackets with their sunned spines and their slightly foxed pages, and the scent of old book which will linger upon them for as long as they stay in solid form. There is no need for me to give them up, even with the advent of digital readers. I know!! It’s a surprise that people are still actually able to make their own choices about how they read, and what kinds of books they buy, despite the proliferation of worried commentaries about the death of the book.

With the mass closures in Australia of Angus and Robertson and Borders stores, there’s been an extended proliferation of worried commentaries about the death of the bookstore.

Yet these instances seem to be more a result of bad business planning than about consumers switching wholesale to e-books. However, other emerging statistics do tell an interesting developing story about the attractiveness of instant book satisfaction leading to some significant downturns in physical book sales. But, is it wise to continue the alarmist rhetoric about the death of the book?

I’m much more sanguine, and tend to share the views of more moderate commentators, for example here and here that claims about the death of the book have been greatly exaggerated. I see no need to ditch my hard earned and beautiful book collection and have them all digitally rendered. That’s patently absurd. When video came out we all still went to the movies despite the fears that everyone would stay home. Hard-back books and e-books are not the same, and nor should they be equated. Paperbacks I’m less attached to, but that’s because often the paperback version is a cheaper reproduction for a mass market. The hard back is for the collector. But I still haven’t made the most salient point: that books, ‘e’ or ‘hb,’ are more defined and valued by purpose and the aesthetics of their content, than their form. This is an idea publishers and e-book designers should think about much more.

I will return to form, because the most commonly expressed reservations people I’ve talked to give for their reluctance to use e-books relate to tangibility, and to where and how our human bodies are used to reading. Those who have already embraced e-books may still actually love their paper books. It’s not a matter of giving up one way for the other, but of diversifying consumption: creating hybrid ways of enjoying the still popular pleasures reading gives us.


Literary Aesthetics

Much is made of the cultural context surrounding the production of a work of fiction – the conditions of artistic creation and the location, the setting: the historical moment. The quality of the text lies in the words being read and the experience that reading renders up to each individual – whether or not the words are read on an iPad or from a paperback book. I’ll give you an example.

The other day I was going to work on the train and reading the first short story from Yiyun Li’s second collection of stories, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl. I found the book in iBooks, and the free sample gave one story, the introduction and the table of contents. I had not read past the fourth page before I was in tears. No, it wasn’t because reading on the iPad is an impoverished aesthetic experience – it was the quality of the writing and the powerful impact the writing was having on me. The simplicity, and therefore the utter beauty of the image of loss, innocence, and pathos which I read was so strong. It didn’t matter that I was reading an electronic version. The power of that moment was contained in the words, not in the physicality of the object delivering the words to me.

I am not immune to the romance of the material object. Part of the reason I love my copy of Under a Glass Bell is that I know it was actually hand printed by Anaïs Nin, or if not actually by her, on her printing press in New York. I know this not because it is advertised in the book, but because I’ve read the Diary and read of her struggle to get her work published by established presses. She also wanted to help her lover set up a business, so she financed the press and contributed the work to be published. She writes  in the Diary about the trips to the press, the setting of the type, and the manual labour of printing each edition.

These stories add value to the object and make up a good proportion of the desire I have for it. It is also, actually, a rather beautiful thing. However, a reader who ventures inside and spends time with this book is given further journeys into a far wider spectrum of aesthetic, intellectual and emotional experiences – experiences which indeed expand from and eventually eclipse both the romance of the story of production and the physicality of the object. Take for example the first story in Under a Glass Bell, “The Mouse”.

The Mouse and I lived on a house boat anchored near Notre

Dame, where the Seine curved endlessly like veins around the

island heart of Paris.

The Mouse was a small woman with thin legs, big breasts,

and frightened eyes. She moved furtively, taking care of the

house boat, sometimes silently, sometimes singing a little frag-

ment of a song. Seven little notes from some folk song of

Brittany, always followed by the clashes of pots and pans.

Anaïs Nin, 1944, page 19.

Once I am immersed in the story and my imagination is engaged, the mode of delivery becomes irrelevant. Nin takes readers into Paris, into her houseboat, and into the strange, gentle, fearful and extraordinary lives of ordinary people – extraordinary because the quality of her writing so easily engages the imagination of the reader for whom the stories are written.

Yes, I love and adore my slim, sepia-toned and deliciously history-scented 1944 copy of Under a Glass Bell, but I also value the instant gratification of getting a book delivered wirelessly to my Kindle for iPad, so I can have the reading experience I desire sooner, and cheaper, rather than later and with the environmental cost of transporting the book across country or continents. The other thing to note is that a writer like Nin today can make a book of his or her own on a computer with relative ease, publish it, market it and reach readers in a short space of time. Is it as romantic a prospect? I think it is. Anaïs Nin’s story of “The Mouse” can make me cry with just as much feeling as Yiyun Li’s story of “Kindness” – irrespective of form.

The case of The Wasteland App.

Perhaps the most interesting recent convergence of literary aesthetics and the e-reader, was the release in June 2011 of an interactive version of T.S Eliot’s epic poem “The Wasteland” on the iPad.  If ever there was a literary work in which aesthetics were paramount in aiding appreciation, it would be this poem, and the developers themselves, Touch Press, acknowledge the challenge of bringing such a complex and intertextual poem to an e-reader format. But for me, this case actually makes the case for why e-readers such as the iPad, which can link out to the web, can expand HD quality pictures, play movies and audio, and are navigated easily by the reader / user, are ideally suited to be a new exciting and aesthetically rich, literary format.

The convoluted literary aesthetics of “The Wasteland” are made more visible in this iPad version, especially for a new or naive reader for whom the extensive intertextuality, allusions to mythology, and arcane references might well remain obscure. What youthful contemporary reader would be aware, for example, in Part II – A Game of Chess – that the “laquearia” into which “the prolonged candle-flames, Flung their smoke” refers not simply to a paneled ceiling, but specifically to a scene from Virgil’s Aenid, where Dido, Queen of Carthage, is holding a banquet for Aenaes, her beloved, who, we are additionally informed, eventually deserts Dido. Thus from this “touch” upon a cold screen, connections between an ultra-contemporary viewing / reading experience, high-modernism, and deep literary history open up, converge, and warm our senses.

Extensive reader notes, definitions and commentary derived from scholarly works on the poem, provide an intense and immersive experience. Purists won’t find it to their liking, but even they might enjoy the facsimile version of the original manuscript edited and annotated by Ezra Pound. It offers hours of reading, listening and thinking. Hearing the poem read by Eliot himself – either a reading from1933 or one from 1947 – is a profoundly rich addition. My favourite reader from the app. is Alec Guinness, whose vibrant voice with its versatile accent, draws the listener seamlessly into the reflective self-dialogue – “What shall I do now? What shall I do … And we shall play a game of chess”.   But a younger audience might appreciate the smooth, strangely seductive intonation from Viggo Mortenson. I found “Aragorn” somewhat flat, though, in comparison with Eliot (complete with scratchy turn of the gramophone) and Guinness.

I can still curl up with a good book when ever I want – as I can also curl up with a book that delivers its story to me via a screen. The possibilities opening up through computer tablets like the iPad and other e-readers, are only at the beginning. The depth of detail which can be accessed, the history, the sights and the sounds can draw new readers into the past, and seasoned readers into the future. The future of reading is alive and well, even if the form of the book is changing. And anyway, it is really the stories which matter – don’t you agree?

One Response to “Commentary and Opinion”

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